Jen Williams is part of the new wave of exciting British fantasy authors. Her work includes The Copper Cat Trilogy and The Winnowing Flame series. We got in touch to find out more about her latest book, The Poison Song.STARBURST: How would you describe The Winnowing Flame series, and The Poison Song in general?
Jen Williams: The Winnowing Flame trilogy is modern epic fantasy – only it’s also science fiction, and maybe also horror. It’s a diverse, feminist fantasy, and it’s also crammed with weird monsters, beasts, and snarky dialogue. In The Poison Song, our trio of heroes must finally find a way to defeat the terrible insectoid aliens that are trying to devour their world. Easy, right? Not so much, as it turns out.And how would you pitch that to someone who has only ever seen The Lord of The Rings movies?
It’s like The Lord of the Rings if the elves were murderous blood-drinking bastards. And those are the good guys.
How different was writing this novel compared to The Copper Cat Trilogy?
I deliberately wanted to make things harder for myself with this series, so where The Copper Cat Trilogy could almost be seen as three standalone adventures, the Winnowing Flame is one continuous story arc; much tougher to write - for me, at least - because you have to have a reasonable idea of what the ending looks like before you start. I also wanted to weave the world-building deep into the fabric of the story, and the characters themselves.Which scene was the most fun to write?
I have a love/hate relationship with writing complicated action scenes - the fact that I put so many in my books just goes to show what a masochist I am - so for me, the most enjoyable things to write are quiet, dialogue-heavy scenes. I love seeing characters interact, I love seeding things in their dialogue and body language that the reader will pick up on. In The Winnowing Flame, some characters are able to shape dreams, and there’s a dream sequence in The Poison Song that might be one of my favourite things I’ve written, both because of the imagery involved and the complex relationship of the characters.
There are lots of complicated relationships in The Winnowing Flame series, did you have a favourite to write?
I love them all, but the central relationship between the three main characters is the heart of the trilogy, and I always love writing that kind of deep friendship/found-family bond. They are all very capable of winding each other up, but ultimately would die for each other. More specifically, I very much enjoyed writing the somewhat more messed up relationship between Tormalin and his sister, Hestillion. Obviously they loved each other once, but the paths their lives have taken have placed them on opposite sides of a terrible conflict, and the gulf might be too wide to ever bridge.Which character from the novel would you want to spend time with?
For shallow reasons, I might say Tormalin, the handsome, charming immortal who spent decades learning how to be great in bed, but more realistically I would love to go on a hike with Vintage – she’d be endlessly entertaining, and they’d likely be a bottle of wine at the end of it.
Where does the idea for Noon come from? What did you draw on to create the Winnowry?
The Winnowry, which imprisons and exploits women with a certain magical talent, is inspired, unfortunately, by a lot of real-world nonsense; we’re not quite free of women being treated as dangerous, dirty or inferior just yet. Noon grew mostly out of the story, and from asking myself questions about how an experience like the Winnowry would shape you. What happens when you imprison a person from the age of ten? When you keep them from all physical human contact? And they have the ability to blow things up?
Who would you cast Tor as in the movie/TV series?
Daniel Henney – great eyebrows, outrageously handsome.Why are ‘Goth elves’ so interesting? What’s not to like? Well, they’re not Goth elves at all really – Tor is a fairly snappy dresser who would object to being limited to black clothes and silver jewellery, and The Cure doesn’t exist on Sarn. It was interesting to take a version of your classic fantasy race and ask some difficult questions about them: what happens to a people if they are incredibly long-lived? What if they believe themselves to be superior? What happens if that longevity is taken away, and their only path out of it involves murdering thousands of people? You already think you are superior – perhaps the leap needed to take that path is a terrifyingly small one.
Are the weird, alien insect Jure'lia really all that bad? Not at all. They are just doing what comes naturally to them. With the Winnowing Flame trilogy I wanted to combine your nuanced, ‘human’ villain with a villain that is really a force of nature – the Jure’lia aren’t destroying everything and everyone because they have a grudge, as such. The fun bit as a writer comes from gradually giving the reader a greater understanding of an enemy that was supposedly impossible to understand.
There seems to be a move toward very world-building orientation, consequence heavy fantasy. Why is that, do you think? I am wary of answering questions about ‘the state of fantasy now’, because I suspect that concentrating on the popular trends means we tend to ignore all the other fantasy that was being written at the time… I’m sure, for example, that world building has always been a key part of popular fantasy. Having said that, I think the modern fantasy fan wants and expects fantasy that takes itself seriously to an extent – and that means worlds that feel solid, populated by complex characters.
What elements make a fantasy world seem real to you?
Dialogue. Basically, if the dialogue sounds like real people talking, then I’ll believe pretty much anything else you throw at me. Give me ‘thous’ and too much overly formal language, and I will jetpack out of there.
How important is escapism in the modern day?
I think it’s incredibly important to human nature in general. People use their imaginations constantly – it’s how humans deal with every problem, process every experience – and escapism is an integral part of that. Without escapism, without being able to imagine yourself elsewhere, there is no hope – which is vital to all human experience. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay says some incredibly important things about escapism, and if you want to know the real value of being able to imagine yourself elsewhere, I highly recommend reading it - also because it’s just an excellent book.Who has had the greatest influence on your work so far?
I suspect it’s impossible to answer this question accurately. My early influences would have been Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman. More recently it would have been Robin Hobb, Studio Ghibli, Dragon Age, Farscape, Skyrim, Bernard Cornwell. That’s the thing about influences though; they’re sneaky, they get under your skin and you don’t necessarily notice.What one thing about yourself surprises most people?
Despite the Dungeons & Dragons atmosphere of The Copper Cat trilogy, I only started playing D&D roughly a year ago.The Poison Song (and the entire Winnowing Flame series) is out now.